Do you need to outline?

By Corey Mandell • August 29, 2022

Most books say you do

So do many of the screenwriting seminars. One of the better known gurus says there are two types of writers – those who figure out the story before they begin writing and those who fail. Pretty strong words.

But knowing this is the prevelant conventional wisdom didn’t prepare me for what happened recently at a screenwriting panel I was sitting in on. There were about two-hundred people in the audience listening to advice from a panel of three screenwriting experts. A young woman raised her hand and asked if she needed to outline before attempting her first draft?

They said yes. They told her she had to outline.

Then one of the panel members said this. “I don’t believe writers who say they don’t need to outline. Everybody needs to outline. The people who don’t do this are dilettantes. They aren’t serious. They have no chance.”

His fellow panel members agreed. And then started making fun of writers who think they don’t need to outline. All of this in front of a roomful of young writers trying to find their path, intently listening to the sage advice from these experts. I wanted to stand up and challenge the panel. If nothing else, to let the audience know there might be a different viewpoint on the matter. But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything. And to this day I am still ashamed of that.

What I wish I had stood up and said was this:

 - If I may, I would like to respectfully disagree with you. I would also like to suggest that you are brutally misinformed, petty, and doing damage.

There is simply no one right way to write. No one-size-fits-all. The spec script that launched my career, transforming me from someone who desperately hoped to someday be a professional screenwriter to having Ridley Scott make this dream a reality, was a screenplay I wrote without an outline. I simply sat down with a character in a crisis and went from there. And I am not alone. I know plenty of writers, far more successful them me, who do not outline. I also know plenty of successful writers who do outline.

So while it would clearly be ridiculous to tell someone that if they outline they aren’t serious and have no chance at success, it’s equally ridiculous to tell people they have to outline or they are dilettantes doomed to failure.

It should be against the law for any teacher or expert to tell writers that in order to succeed they need to use any one process. It just doesn’t work that way. There is no one size fits all universally right way to create stories. The true path to success is found by trying different approaches to find the one that allows you to create your best work and please don’t let anyone or any book tell you different.

Corey Mandell

Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant, Kopelson Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures.   Corey is a distinguished instructor at UCLA, where he earned his MFA.  His students have gone on to sell or option scripts to Warner Brothers, Paramount  Sony Pictures, Disney,...